Can a virtual world change the real one? Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center has an extensive post stemming from a short presentation I gave at the Metaverse Roadmap conference we attended last weekend. That Saturday, I gave the summary of a Roadmap breakout session, where a group of geekishly-inclined media folks described our vision for the state of online worlds in 2016. Working with their notes and some of my mine, we envisioned a future where the metaverse was the new operating system, an equal contributor to popular culture, an integral element in the world economy, and so entirely woven into the Internet that it would depict everything we knew about the physical world as a topography of interactive 3D data. This last point was perhaps the most optimistic, because, we argued, the metaverse would create total transparency across the globe and keep us informed on the health of the planet and its peoples. There was a virtual Camp Darfur in Second Life now, I mentioned by example; it's primarily a resource site to raise awareness of the ongoing genocide in Sudan. Ten years from now, I suggested, places like that could easily incorporate real world data in real time.
Ethan (brilliant in a brusque-but-avuncular sort of way) took great exception to that last point. Or in his words, "I lost it."
Later on, in a post that's both thoughtful and gracefully forceful, he explains the strength of his reaction:
The reason Second Life bugs me is not the fact that it slows my computer to a crawl, that most of my fellow characters are impossibly thin girls with overinflated breasts, or that most of the activity of the world seems to rotate around real estate and sex. (It reminds me of Reagan’s America, without the cocaine.) No, it’s the cyberutopianism.
I love the Reagan line, but considering the popularity of virtual magic mushrooms and artificial life pot plants, not to mention the hot tubs or rampant free love, I'd say Second Life usually seems more like Jerry Brown's California. But that's just me.
But his point about cyberutopianism is well-taken, especially coming as it does from a man who's been to real life refugee camps in Africa (he told me later), and as a human rights activist who's been exasperated at the difficulty to get any first-hand data on Darfur-- let alone create an accurate simulation of a camp inside it. (For the record, when I made this point, I was thinking of how satellite imagery of Darfur's razed villages could be depicted in the metaverse, even when first-hand reporting was not possible, but it's my fault for not spelling that out.) In any case, Ethan's point wasn't to denigrate the effort that went into creating SL's Camp Darfur, or the superheroes who now protect it against griefers-- it's to wonder how important such an installation is in the hierarchy of the here and now, against an ongoing genocide:
The web, now twelve years old, will help draw attention to people
affected by these situations, improve reporting and give us voices from
people on the ground… though we’ll still need professional journalists,
real-world NGOs and, possibly, military forces to intervene in
situations like Darfur. It’s not that the metaverse doesn’t matter.
It’s just not a very high priority yet.
And that point is well-taken, too, though it does make you wonder what role all those who aren't in an NGO or the Marine Expeditionary Force can play. (Beyond contacting their Congresspeople and the media, and seeking other traditional avenues of redress.) Still, I agree that the metaverse as a tool for social change is down on a ways on the priority list-- perhaps on par with starting a website that promotes genocide awareness. (Even if Camp Darfur attracted just five visitors every hour, it'd be on a parity with most political blogs, which are lucky to attract over a thousand unique visitors per week.)
But while it's surely not a high priority, I do want to make the case that virtual worlds like Second Life should at least be seen as a medium priority for effecting social and political progress-- certainly in the next few years. A couple rough, still-in-development arguments for that after the break.
during the Katrina disaster last year, when Residents shared photographs from New Orleans and other ravaged areas, and created memorial candles for the victims, some of whom were SL members directly hit by the storm. I call this "immersive blogging", borrowing the first term from the world of VR research and game development, to capture the quality of being surrounded by experience in a way that shifts the experience from passive watcher to embodied participant. I'm not an academic, and the folks at Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab are the ones to best speak on the phenomenon, but as a reporter and a participant myself, it's my sense that this shifting effect is genuine. See yourself as an avatar, see the graphical 3D world around you as a true space-- and see the people you're interacting with as people you know, and can have a moral emotional investment in. Which leads to my second argument:
Embodied Interaction becomes Active Engagement: Unlike blogging and other Net-based interaction, the quality of a virtual world "punctures the fourth wall", removing the barrier between medium and participant, and translates into a willingness to engage that mediums before it do not usually encourage. Again, I'm not an academic, so this is my inference based on anecdote. I saw this phenomenon during Katrina, when Residents who didn't know them personally before took great risks and made significant sacrifices to help the storm's refugees. More recently, of course, I reported on how roleplaying heroes quickly morphed into something like the real thing, in the effort to protect Camp Darfur. As Ethan says in his post, it's a lot easier to guard a virtual refugee camp, than shield the real camps. But I think that misses another point: where there were once gamers, there are now nascent activists, struggling to do something, anything, on an issue that many hadn't previously given much thought.
These cases are small and not necessarily typical, but they're the kind of things that make me think that something like a lever to move the civic-minded is developing here. My guess (and hope) is we'll see more of the phenomenon as the world expands, and as it expands, so too the glimmer of an influence on the real world. Will it be enough to end genocide? Certainly not now or any time soon. But it's already been enough to improve international relations on a micro level. And as it happens, there's an even better test case coming next month-- a Los Angeles political candidate is gambling that his virtual campaign headquarters in SL will help win him a seat on the City Council.
In any case, I hope to see Ethan at next year's Metaverse Roadmap, so we can compare notes. Maybe I'll be less optimistic. Or maybe he'll think SL's less like Reagan's America.
Ethan's post is here-- read it all, and be sure to catch the comments section as well.
Zero Grace has some thoughts on this conversation, too.